Petit Le Mans – Practice and Qualifying

My first two blog entries covered preparations for the 15th Running of the Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda and some tips before you leave the house.  The next two blogs will be about what happens and what to do when getting to the track.  Today’s blog will specifically be about Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading up to the race.  I think the easiest way to approach this is day-by-day

Wednesday – Roll In and Setup

[caption id="attachment_807" align="alignright" width="300"] Overlooking the Paddock[/caption]

For me, Wednesday is all about getting to the track and setting up.  Typically, the night before I leave for the track I have everything I need ready to go.  As soon as the kids are off to the bus stop I begin the short journey to Road Atlanta.  I try to get to the track as early as possible. It just makes things easier.  As I mentioned in my last blog, camping spots are first come, first serve so you want to arrive early.  This is especially true for groups that want to set up a camp of several RVs/tents together.

Once you have determined where you are going to setup then the fun begins!  Campers, awnings, kitchen, camp shower, tents and lawn decorations are all set up over the next couple of hours.  Usually, we have everything wrapped-up by mid-afternoon.  Now I have heard there are actually cars on the track during this time but I don’t know if I have ever seen them. I guess I have heard them whizzing by a few feet away past the fence, but focus is everything at the beginning. By the time camp is set up I am ready to put my feet up for a while.

However, if you are not camping (or a lot faster and more efficient than we are), I think Wednesday is a great day to take a walk down to the main paddock area and have a look around.  The paddock is a lot less crowded on Wednesday than it will be at any other time during the week.  Additionally the teams tend to be a little more relaxed then as well.

Unlike many other forms of motorsport the paddock at ALMS races is pretty open. One of the greatest things about the ALMS and Petit in particular is that you can walk right up to the trailers and watch the cars being worked on. It’s like being feet away from an NFL locker room – just with less naked guys. You really get to see the cars up close, bodywork removed and the guts of the machine right there in front of you. The drivers are often out there and most are all too happy to sign an autograph or just chat about the race. If a crew guy has the time, you won’t get a better idea of what goes on behind the scenes and what to expect from the weekend than you will from one of them. Team members will often take the time to answer questions and let you take pictures next to (and sometimes in) the race cars, assuming they are not in the middle of a major project like an engine swap.  A couple of rules of thumb though.  Most teams will have barriers or stanchions up at the front of their work space.  It is NOT OK to walk behind them without permission.  Whether for a picture or a closer look at the car, always ask first. You’ll be surprised how far you’ll get with just some basic manners.  Also, don’t assume that because someone else is already behind the barrier that it’s alright for you to join them.  You should still ask permission. Finally, don’t overstay your welcome.  If a team invites you back it’s important to remember that most of the time the teams

are working under tight deadlines and while they don’t mind you taking a few pictures or having a look around they most likely are not interested in spending the rest of the afternoon with you. 

Oh, and the most important part.  Don’t touch anything!  I was there once when a toddler pressed the big red button on a car and set off the fire suppression system 30-minutes before the start of a race.  What a mess.  (In fairness the system was not supposed to be charged and on at the time, but that’s why I would recommend not touching anything.)  If something happens, the best-case scenario is you won’t be invited back in. Worst case, you might be invited to leave the track.

Thursday – Night Practice and Vendor Village

I think in many ways Thursday is my favorite day at the track.  It’s still not too crowded and getting around the track is easy.  Unlike race day you can hop in your car and drive from one end of the track to the other.  On race day you will pretty much need to walk it unless you have a bike or a golf cart – remember, carts require an additional pass. 

The other great thing is the amount of on-track activity on Thursday.  In addition to the morning and afternoon practice sessions there is a two-hour night practice.  Night practice really shouldn’t be missed.  Unlike race day, when by the time the sun sets many cars may have dropped out, night practice pretty much has all the cars on the track. 

When you combine the fact that getting around the track is so convenient by car it affords you the opportunity to hit several different viewing areas during that time.  One area in particular that I always go to during night practice is Turns Six and Seven.  This is the closest you can get to the cars on the track and there is not a catch fence here so you can get amazing pictures.  The great part about Turn Seven is, the cars are under heavy braking going into the turn and you get the best views of brake discs glowing molten red from the friction of the brake pads.

The other activity I like to do at some point on Thursday is head to Vendor Village. By Thursday most of the vendors are set up and crowds are light.  If you are a car guy, Vendor Village has tons of things to look at and purchase.  Racing memorabilia, die-cast cars, shirts, hats, artwork, photographs, stickers, you name it.  Most of the vendors are able to take credit cards now but it is probably a good idea to have some cash handy just in case.  There usually is an ATM setup in the Vendor Village if you forget. You’ll find it all on the main road at the top of the hill in the infield.

[caption id="attachment_806" align="alignright" width="225"] Autograph Session[/caption]

Friday – Qualifying and Autograph session

Surprisingly, Friday is a pretty light day in terms of track time for the ALMS competitors.  There is a morning combined practice and then qualifying in the afternoon.  The qualifying sessions are relatively short, 15 minutes per class basically.  This is typically more than enough time however since most cars only run a few laps since they are required to start on the tires they qualify on. The teams don’t want to jeopardize the early part of the race – the first stint between the start and the first pit stop – by running the tires past their prime.

Even though the ALMS on-track time is limited, there are still plenty of things to do.  If you are a collector of autographs and like to meet drivers there is an autograph session in the paddock from 12:30-1:30 on Friday.  It is a great way to meet your favorite drivers and get a little team swag in the process.  The autograph tables are setup in the paddock at the back of each team’s transporter, so if there are some specific drivers’ autographs you are seeking I would recommend getting in line before 12:30.  Typically, Corvette Racing, has the longest line, but teams like Flying Lizards, Muscle Milk and BMW have long lines as well.  I would also expect a pretty massive line at Dempsey Racing since I assume that “Grey’s Anatomy” actor and part-time driver Patrick Dempsey will be signing autographs.

Be sure to check the schedule of events because there are several “Tech Talks” on Thursday and Friday in the paddock.  These can be really interesting to attend if you want to learn about the cars and the strategies.  Typically, they are led by the team manager or crew chief.  They talk about the car, their setup, challenges of the track, event, etc.  There is usually a question and answer segment at the end as well. You won’t see this in any other sport and not in too many other forms of auto racing either!

Also on Friday are all of the support races.  Porsche Cup, Mazda MX5 Cup and the Star Mazda series are all running their races on Friday and provide some really exciting racing.

Well, that about covers it for Wednesday through Friday.  Next week will be about race day and the things you can do during a 10-hour race. 

Thanks for reading until then… cheers!

By Dean Richardson, longtime Petit Le Mans spectator

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